The Atlanta Falcons were soundly beaten on Sunday. The Cincinnati Bengals, fresh off a season in which they came a handful of plays from their first Super Bowl title, were simply too good for Arthur Smith’s men. A team with an electric young quarterback/wide receiver partnership, a very solid run game, and an underrated defensive front, had just about every answer for the now 3-4 Falcons, winning 35-17.
What the scoreline doesn’t tell you, however, is that the Falcons were actually in the game. Yes, they went down by multiple scores early, and, yes, the Bengals seemed to be able to pick up a first down every time Joe Burrow dropped back. But with about 30 seconds to go in the first half, they were only 21-14 down.
At half time, 28-17, and they were to receive the ball in the second half. By anyone’s metric, they were well and truly in the game. That was, in no small part, due to the run game they’ve leaned on so heavily this season. Then they tried to do something different, and the game got away from them.
I bring this up because over the past week I’ve noticed an intense disdain for the brand of football the Falcons are producing. Not least from self-proclaimed fantasy football experts. “The Falcons were down by 3 scores and only threw the ball 13 times!” and “Arthur Smith is a bad coach for not targeting Kyle Pitts and Drake London!” floods timelines the world over from people who, otherwise, have no vested interest in the team. It’s almost as if there’s a complete lack of understanding as to who and what the Atlanta Falcons are in 2022.
The 2022 Atlanta Falcons
Let me spell it out for you: the 2022 Atlanta Falcons are a team handicapped by a record amount of dead cap. Their team is made up of players that, in a lot of cases, won’t be in the NFL in 2023. This is a team whose sole objective for 2022 is to be relevant so that, when they do have money in 2023, they can appeal to the larger fishing the free agency pond. This season is about creating a culture that can translate to success in the coming years. The best way to do that is to show that you’re capable of doing more with less, and argue that the sky’s the limit when you have access to more.
What should be clear to anyone this season is that the Falcons are flawed in a number of areas. They’re paper-thin depth-wise in just about every position on the team, they still don’t really have a pass rush, and they don’t have a guarantee at the quarterback position. Marcus Mariota has shown flashes, but those are few and far between. Even on his best days, Mariota’s an erratic passer. Far too erratic to expect him to achieve success throwing the ball 25-30 times a game.
The Falcons selected Desmond Ridder in the 3rd round of the 2022 NFL draft. He might well hold some of the answers to the passing game’s woes moving forward, but, clearly, the Falcons don’t believe he’s ready. That’s fine, by the way. The last thing you want to do is throw a rookie in before their time, killing off his career before it’s begun.
What this amounts to is a team that simply isn’t very good, maximizing what few positives they have. By running the ball effectively, they can control the clock. That allows them to tire the opposition’s defense, and keep their deeply flawed defense off the field. It also keeps the ball out of the hands of their inaccurate quarterback, minimizing turnovers. Playing to your strengths is what good coaches tend to do, by the way.
What this also means is that their generational tight end, and their top 10 wide receiver, are going to be sidelined somewhat. I think we can all agree that we want to see Kyle Pitts and Drake London unleashed for 10 receptions a game, but that isn’t something the Falcons are capable of right now. To do so would be putting the team in a losing position, which isn’t how you change the culture of a losing team.
Fantasy is a fantasy
Listen, I like fantasy football as much as the next person. I’m in a number of leagues, and I drafted Kyle Pitts fairly high in one of them, too. I’d love for the Falcons to come out slinging it his way on Sundays. But only if it equates to wins for the Falcons. Right now, the Falcons are in a position no one thought they’d be in. They’re joint atop the NFC South, playing good teams close, and have more than one win. And they’re doing it without leaving too heavily on their young stars, which should help them stay healthy as the season wears on.
I think the biggest problem with fantasy football is that it conflates raw numbers with quality of performance. A player that is heavily targeted would be considered a better fantasy option than one less so, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s the equivalent of looking at the box score of a game on Google and building a picture from there.
Kyle Pitts isn’t having a mindblowing season statistically, but he’s doing what Arthur Smith wants him to do right now. He’s already said as much. Just because he’s not succeeding for your fantasy team, that doesn’t mean his not succeeding on his real-life team. Really, that’s all that matters.